MADISON — Have you seen those folks dressed in period costumes with displays set up at every county fair you’ve ever been to? You know, the ones where you can watch soap and rope making and woodworking?
The Madison County Fair has those same folks at its Heritage Village this week, featuring craftsmen and women who live as nomads traveling across the country to bring history and entertainment to fairgoers.
And they come from all over to do it.
Regina Delarm, or “Reggie the Potter,” calls Connecticut home. Or at least she does when she’s there.
“I’m only home about four months out of the year,” she said, with a cheerful laugh.
She has warm eyes framed by smile lines and stands barefooted next to her potter’s wheel where she uses clay to make everything from cups and bowls to specialty items like miniature crockery. The miniature items are pitchers barely 3 inches tall by 2 inches wide, with some including faces showing exaggerated noses and ears to humor kids.
Delarm, who has a degree in graphic design, now specializes in early American pottery making. She is like most of the other entertainers and amateur historians at Heritage Village. They have a craft, rare by today’s standards, and they love to share even though it means being away from home.
Directly across from Delarm are Bob and Cindie Etienne, who own “Heart Felt Creations” and specialize in making historically accurate handmade items such as rope, ice cream, cheese and clothing. They hail from an area where Illinois and Indiana hug Kentucky’s state line.
“Our mail gets delivered to Indiana, we’re living in Illinois and you can go from the house across the bridge into Kentucky in about 8 miles,” he said, with a grin and slight southern drawl.
But like Delarm, they are barely there.
“It’s a different life, and we’ve been on the road as much as nine months in a year,” he said.
The couple — and the other artisans — travel across country, often booking jobs at county fairs, museums or schools that value their trade and will pay them to come. And because the folks at Heritage Village are all independent contractors, that means attempting to squeeze in work before or after they secure a job. The hope, Bob Etienne said, is to make one confirmed job blossom into extra work, especially if it that first job required cross-country travel.
“It’s a gamble where you might get a job from,” he said. “You have to look for that job and keep at it, and then decide how far you’re willing to travel and for how much.”
With his jolly nature, snow-white beard and suspenders, Etienne could double as Santa Claus in December. But this July, he’s a rope maker wearing a blue bandanna.
He stops talking and moves over to help 8-year-old Sadie Brabec make a rope before continuing.
“We’ve been doing (this) 12 years, together,” he said of his wife. But she has been at it much longer, he added.
“I’ve been going to Dollywood for 20 years,” Cindie Etienne said in reference to the theme park in Tennessee created by Dolly Parton.
She said the hardest part about doing the work is securing the jobs. And she hates cold calling places because it’s difficult for people to understand that they are not musicians and that they aren’t selling a product.
“When we’re done, I like to be home for a break, but when (the jobs) get close, I’m ready to get back on the road,” she said.
John Bielik, who, like Delarm, majored in graphic design, now specializes in paper marbling and is described as the baby of the group at the Heritage Village. He spends significant time on the road plying his trade, but he also educates children at nonprofit art schools.
Paper marbling — think staining over painting — relies on chemistry to adhere color pigments to the plant fibers of paper, Bielik said. Originating in China hundreds of years ago, the process uses animal bile and starchy water to create patterns on paper. Because of the process used, the color often outlasts the item the paper is glued to, he said.
“I don’t just sit here and marble,” he said, while mixing pigments. “I’m educating; it’s at the roots of what I do.”
Bielik, who has been marbling paper since 1994, is passionate about what he does and finds meaning in it — much more than he would if he were working a regular 9-to-5 job, he said. But he, like the others at the village, acknowledges the difficulty of the life.
“The hardest part of my life is trying to get everything to dovetail together,” he said about living a fluid lifestyle.
Then he expressed his gratitude for those interested in the crafts those at the Heritage Village are sharing.
“I’m really thankful that people want to support what we all do here,” he said. “(Others) go to work at a bank or are mechanics. Well, we marble paper or make pottery. This is our job, and we take it very seriously. It’s our life.”